The Art of the Podcast Translates to Class

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A teacher in one of my graduate classes remarked that she loved using technology in her classroom, but to her the biggest waste of time was the podcast. Why would anyone bother with a podcast? It was clear she had never listened to This American Life . Until that moment, I thought everyone had listened to the NPR show, since its often the number one download on iTunes. Still, it appears the podcast, while a powerful communication tool, has yet to reach everyone or convince teachers of the value of writing and recording vocal narration. A podcast can be used in a variety of ways in a classroom, from reading a story, play or poem aloud, to writing and narrating an ongoing news event, to telling a fact-based or purely fictional tale. And it can also be collected in a portfolio of resources on any topic, along with videos, writing, webpages, journal archives and other digital resources. Between Radiolab and the TED Radio Hour, every topic from A thru Z is slowly but surely represented in a large archive of collected wisdom and commentary.

The tuning point in my own view of the podcast came listening to the This American Life episode Home Alone. Airing in 2007, I sat transfixed in my car listening during Saturday errands, unable to even open the car door to get my weekend errands done. Act Two of the episode, aptly called “Boy Interrupted” is an unforgettable story about the American lives we don’t hear much about, except when tragedy strikes. The story synopsis:

Growing up, Clevins Browne moved all over New York with his mother,
in different apartments and homeless shelters. But that all changed
when he was 12, and they got an apartment in a public housing
complex in Brooklyn. Then, when he had just turned 15, his mom
collapsed in pain while they were watching TV at home. Clevins called
911, and then hid in the closet, so he wouldn’t be taken away by child
services. He stayed in the apartment by himself—with no money,
hardly any food—until his mother came home from the hospital: Five
months later. Clevins talked to This American Life producer Sarah
Koenig, about how he survived. (22 minutes).

More compelling than any newspaper article or expose in the Sunday newspaper, the audience follows the day-to-day life of a teenager home alone, dodging child protective services and figuring out life on his own. The narration of the story doesn’t need a picture to create a vivid mental image, and teaches the value of words in a fresh context. Recording, once limited to professionals alone, is  a powerful tool beyond creating music for telling a story, whether about a dangerous microbe or the musings of a comedy writer or the story of a child foraging for his dinner.